October 5, 2011
There’s a wonderful little nip in the air that’s invaded the Metro area, and finally taken the edge off that dreadful humidity that had been lingering like in-laws that just won’t take the hint to leave. It’s the perfect time for you and that special someone to go out for the evening and kick up your heels, or get out to learn something. And wouldn’t you know it, the Smithsonian museums have a full slate of varied evening events scheduled for pretty much every night this month. We’ve selected an uneven eleven, because that’s just how we roll.
1. See a film: If you’re a fan of Asian cinema, Friday nights at 7:00 at the Freer Gallery this October could be your bag, baby. The ambitious Boxer Rebellion tale, 55 Days at Peking, featuring Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner, is playing October 7. You can check out Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, the aptly-titled film about Puyi, the last emperor of China on October 14. And in Rebels of the Neon God, October 21, a street hood gets a overly zealous student admirer.
2. Gaze into the starry, starry night: Get all romantic and hold hands with that special someone while you do some stargazing at the museum’s Public Observatory at the Air and Space Museum. No excuses, guys. You’ve got three dates to chose from—October 8, 21 or 22.
3. Get your dose of intellectual: Share an art outing Wednesday, October 12 at 7:00 and head over to the Smithsonian American Art Museum for figurative painter and portraitist Elizabeth Peyton’s lecture on the creative experience. Peyton is best known for her smaller-scale paintings of stylized, elongated, androgynous figures.
4. Play ball: True, the Nationals didn’t make the playoffs, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to stop loving baseball. The authors of Baseball Americana: Treasures from the Library of Congress will be on hand for signing and discussion at the National Portrait Gallery Wednesday, October 12 at 6:00 7:00. The book uses the Library of Congress’ vast trove of baseball goodies to cover over two centuries of baseball history.
5. Expand your music horizons: Go hear the performance of American composer Daron Hagen’s new concerto for Japanese koto and string quartet Thursday, October 13 at the Freer Gallery. The piece is based on the eleventh-century work of Japanese literature, Tale of Genji, and the soloist Yumi Kurosawa has appeared at Carnegie Hall.
6. Go the sophisticated route: Take your date to After Hours at the Hirshhorn for modern art, cocktails and live music October 14 at 8:00. Tickets are $25 in advance, and the event usually sells out!
7. Chase storms like the pros do: Head over to the IMAX Theater at the Natural History Museum October 20 at 7:00 to catch Tornado Alley 3-D. Director Sean Casey, along with featured scientists Josh Wurman and Karen Kosiba, will be on hand to answer questions like, “Why the heck do you go outside while there’s a gigantic tornado going on?” Tickets are $10 for members, $13 for general admission.
8. Do the locomotion: Receive a history lesson in cinematic form, courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. American Experience: Transcontinental Railroad covers the six-year construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, in all its laborious glory Thursday, October 20 at 6:30.
9. Be a problem solver: Head over to the Anacostia Museum Thursday, October 20 for the lecture and book signing The Heart of the Race Problem: The Life of Kelly Miller. Author Ida E. Jones will be discussing the accomplishments of Miller, the first African American admitted to Johns Hopkins University in 1887. Miller, who pursued a doctorate in mathematics, physics and astronomy, later became interested in improving relationships between the races.
10. Go trick or treating: Have kids, or just want to remember the good old days of trick-or-treating? Head over to Boo at the Zoo at the National Zoo on either October 21, 22 or 23 at 5:30. Throw a costume on your child, or don one yourself and enjoy wildlife and treats. Tickets are $20 for FONZ members, $30 for non-FONZ members.
11. Take flight: If you and your special someone happen to dig airpower, check out the lecture over at Lockheed Martin IMAX Theatre by Captain Rosemary Bryant Mariner October 27 at 8:00. Mariner was one of the first eight women to enter military pilot training back in 1973, and was the first woman to fly a front-line attack aircraft.
Update 10/12/2011: The baseball event this evening takes place at 6 and not 7 p.m., sorry for the inconvenience.
September 28, 2011
On this day 83 years ago, one of the most unexpected medical breakthroughs in human history occurred: Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming woke up to discover a mold growing in one of his petri dishes. Looking closer, he realized that wherever the mold was growing, the staphylococci bacteria he was culturing had died. He spent the next decade growing the penicillium mold and trying to isolate the antibiotic it secreted. The substance—which he termed penicillin—would go on to become the world’s most important antibiotic, saving millions of lives starting in World War II.
The American History Museum is fortunate to be home to the original petri dish in which Fleming found the mold. To commemorate this remarkable discovery, The List this week is a compendium of artifacts held in the Smithsonian collections that represent some of the most significant medical breakthroughs in history.
1. Early X-ray Tube: In 1895, Wilhelm Roentgen, a German physicist, was experimenting with passing electrical currents through glass vacuum tubes when he noticed a strange green glow on a piece of cardboard that was lying on his workbench. He soon discovered that invisible, unknown “x” rays were passing out of the tubes, causing the phosphorescent barium he’d painted on the cardboard to glow. Within a few weeks, he’d used this newly discovered form of energy to take a picture of his wife’s hand bones, producing the first X-ray image in history.
2. Salk’s Polio Vaccine and Syringe: During the first half of the 20th century, polio was an unchecked disease that affected millions worldwide, with no known cure. Experimental trials with the live virus as a vaccine routinely infected children. In 1952, a young virologist at the University of Pittsburgh named Jonas Salk developed a vaccine using the killed virus; with few volunteers willing to be injected with it, his first human subjects included his wife, children and himself. Subsequent field trials showed his vaccine to be safe and effective, leading to the eradication of polio in the United States, a major milestone in battling infectious disease.
3. First Artificial Human Heart: Serious research into a mechanism for replacing the human heart started as early as 1949, and in several experiments, animal hearts were successfully replaced with artificial ones for short periods of time. But it wasn’t until April 4, 1969, when Haskell Karp lay dying of heart failure at a hospital in Houston, that doctors were able to successfully implant a mechanical heart into a human. This pneumatic pump created by Domingo Liotta was implanted by surgeon Denton Cooley, allowing the patient to live for 64 hours until a human heart transplant was available. Sadly, Karp died after receiving the transplant of a real heart due to a pulmonary infection.
4. First Whole-Body CT Scanner: Robert S. Ledley, a biophysicist and dentist, was an early proponent of using computer technology in biomedical research, publishing articles on the topic as early as 1959. After using computers to analyze chromosomes and sequence proteins, he turned to body imaging. His 1973 ACTA scanner was the first machine to use CT (computer tomography) technology to scan the whole body at once, compiling individual x-ray images to create a composite picture of the body, including soft tissue and organs as well as bones.
5. Recombinant DNA Research: Today, genetic modification is involved in everything from manufacturing insulin to producing herbicide-resistant crops. Research by Stanley Cohen and Herbert Boyer between 1972 and 1974 showing that genes from one type of bacteria could be transferred to another paved the way for these future advances in manipulating the genome. Cohen’s handwritten notes on page 51 of this notebook, titled “Outline for Recombination Paper,” provide an early view into this groundbreaking discovery.
September 21, 2011
This Saturday, September 24, is Smithsonian magazine’s Museum Day. So get your museum day ticket, pick your plus-one (the ticket admits you and a guest) and visit one of more than 1,300 participating museums and cultural venues across the country—for free!
Here are just five sites that show the variety represented:
1. Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer – Grand Island, Nebraska
Edward Durrell Stone, architect of the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, designed the main building of the Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer. But the real highlight of a visit to Struhr, in my experience (I went a few years ago with my husband, who grew up in Grand Island), is in walking through the living history portion of the museum. On its grounds, actors reenact 1890s life in a railroad town. There is a working tinsmith, carpenter and blacksmith on the premises, as well as a mercantile, selling lemon drops, and the actual house where actor Henry Fonda was born in 1905.
2. California Surf Museum – Oceanside, California
About 40 miles north of San Diego, this museum, curated by surfer Ric Riavic, chronicles the history of the sport. Its collection includes 55 surfboards ranging from a 100-pound, sugar pine board from 1912 to a four-pound, fiberglass board from 2008, and 1950s photographs from photographer Leroy Grannis, among other artifacts.
3. Buddy Holly Center – Lubbock, Texas
Housed in a building that was once a railway depot, a warehouse and later a restaurant, the Buddy Holly Center features memorabilia from Buddy Holly and other West Texas musicians. The Lubbock hometown boy became a pioneer of rock and roll. Some highlights of the gallery include Holly’s Fender Stratocaster, his famous black-rimmed glasses, a songbook, photographs, clothing and tour itineraries. Incredibly, the center even touts Holly’s report cards.
4. The Center for Wooden Boats – Seattle, Washington
To carry out its mission of providing “a gathering place where maritime history comes alive” so that “small craft heritage is enjoyed, preserved and passed along to future generations,” this Seattle facility offers boat rentals and courses in sailing, boatbuilding, navigating and woodworking. In a workshop starting this Saturday, attendees can learn how to construct an Aleut Ilkyak, a type of kayak used in the Aleutian Islands for thousands of years.
5. Willowbrook Wildlife Center – Glen Ellyn, Illinois
With about 8,300 patients last year, the Willowbrook Wildlife Center is one of the largest hospitals for wild animals. Visitors to the 50-acre preserve in DuPage County can see up to 80 native animals, including eagles, owls, raccoons and foxes, on permanent display. Occasionally, the public is also invited to witness the release of a rehabilitated animal.
September 14, 2011
If you are taking classes at one of the area universities and need to study, but you are looking for a change of scenery, the Smithsonian Institution offers some quiet, study nooks.
Kogod Courtyard: In the Donald W. Reynolds Center, which houses the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Kogod Courtyard is a 28,000-square-foot space with seating, free Wi-Fi and a Courtyard Café. Designed by Foster + Partners, a world famous architectural firm, the courtyard is covered by a wavy, 900-pound, glass and steel canopy. I suggest staking out a study spot here if you are sick of your stuffy library, dorm room or office, because with loads of natural light, ficus, black olive trees and water scrims by landscape architects Kathryn Gustafson and Rodrigo Abela, it at least gives you the sense that you are outdoors.
Lerner Room: Maybe natural light is something I crave working in a cubicle, but another bright space is the Lerner Room, on the third floor of the Hirshhorn Museum. The room, on the north side of the ring-shaped museum, has a panoramic expanse of floor-to-ceiling windows that offers visitors a great view of the National Mall. A curved couch positioned in front of the window makes it a perfect place to curl up with a book, and there are also large tables, which make it a great work space. Enormous Sol LeWitt drawings, one in color and the other in black and white, on the room’s other two walls also give it a cheery atmosphere.
Mitsitam Cafe: The native foods from the Western Hemisphere’s Northern Woodlands, South America, the Northwest Coast, Meso America and Great Plains cooked up at the National Museum of the American Indian’s highly-rated Mitsitam Cafe certainly draw crowds. But if you don’t mind the clamor of diners, or you actually work better with some background noise, then the cafe, with lots of seating and Wi-Fi, can be a nice place to study. Bonus: the traditional frybread makes for a sweet snack.
Enid A. Haupt Garden: Sick of the quad, but in need of some fresh air? Visit a Smithsonian garden. There are several along the stretch between the Hirshhorn and the Freer Gallery on the south side of the National Mall. My favorite is the immaculately-kept, four-acre Enid A. Haupt Garden just behind the Smithsonian Castle—and just above an underground complex that includes the National Museum of African Art, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the S. Dillon Ripley Center. Bring a blanket to spread under a large shade tree, and your laptop. There is free Wi-Fi. On a hot day, you can always retreat to the Castle Café.
Luce Foundation Center: This space on the third and fourth floors of the Smithsonian American Art Museum is a library of a different sort. The museum keeps more than 3,300 pieces of art from its permanent collection in large glass cases, and coins and jewelry in layers of drawers. If you take up post at one of the tables in the center, perhaps you want to time it with an Art + Coffee event that includes a brief talk or tour of the center with coffee and tea. Occasionally and usually on Wednesdays through Sundays, at 1:30 p.m., the center hosts a tour and talk, with complimentary coffee or tea, followed by an acoustic concert by a local musician.
Update 9/23/2011: This post now includes additional information about the Kogod Courtyard.
September 7, 2011
If you’re a teacher or a student, you’ve probably headed back to school this week and already the reading assignments are piling up and exams loom. To ease your pain, we offer this list of cool school artifacts from the Smithsonian Institution’s extensive American history, art and science collections.
Blackboard Protractor: Starting in the years after the Civil War, the number of high school students nationwide boomed. In order to teach the growing math classes, teachers used instruments such as over-sized protractors and compasses to illustrate concepts up at the blackboard. This protractor model was made by the Dietzgen company of Chicago starting in 1925; it was used at Bliss Electrical School in Takoma Park, Maryland, around the year 1950.
Classroom with Three Figures: Lavern Kelley, of Oneota, New York, was a dairy farmer and prolific wood carver from an early age. Over time, as his subject matter expanded from vehicles and objects to people, he became a well-known folk artist–he had pieces commissioned by places like the Fenimore Art Museum, and whittled while going about his daily chores. This diorama draws on Kelley’s memories as a schoolchild in the 1930s and ’40s.
Disney School Bus Thermos: In the 1950s and ’60s, the marketing of school supplies turned into a full-fledged industry, with manufacturers capitalizing on popular mascots to appeal to children. This steel and glass thermos features Mickey Mouse, Goofy and others getting off the school bus to start the day.
Slide Rule: Before calculators or computers, students used this device, originally invented in the 1600s, to calculate multiplication and division problems. As explained in the online exhibition “Slates, Slide Rules, and Software,” the slide rule gradually spread from scientists and engineers to everyday high schoolers in the early part of the 20th century. This slide rule was used at a girls’ high school in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, during the 1960s.
Beatles Lunch Box: As part of “Taking America to Lunch,” exhibition at the American History Museum, an extensive collection of vintage school lunchboxes, from Miss America to Bonanza to Rambo can be found in the museum’s Stars and Stripes Cafe on the museum’s lower level. While television evolved into one of the country’s primary forms of entertainment, the boxes became a way for studios to advertise their shows’ performers. This 1966 Beatles artifact is the first box dedicated to the group; with all four musicians featured on the front and close-ups on the back, it was surely the box of choice for any member of the cool crowd.
Boston School Bus Broken Window: During the civil rights era, in the 1960s and ’70s, public schools became sites for intense confrontation. In 1974, a group of Boston plaintiffs, including the NAACP and parents of African-American students, sued the city’s school board, claiming that segregated neighborhoods led to unequal education opportunities for black and white children. The resulting busing program triggered unrest in many areas, including South Boston, where angry white demonstrators threw glass bottles and rocks, breaking nearly all the bus windows. This window sat in a school bus garage for a decade before being donated to the American History Museum in 1983.
“Little Professor” Handheld Calculator: Desktop calculators emerged in labs and office settings in the 1960s, but the invention of the microprocessor enabled them to be used in classrooms, and as educational toys, in the ’70s and ’80s. While earlier LED calculators were run on NICAD battery packs and required recharging after just hours of use, this “Little Professor,” made by Texas Instruments in the late 1970s, made early use of solar cells to keep the device LCD screen charged conveniently.